Tom Stoppard’s humour is not necessarily of the zinger-punchline sort. He tends to be wry and ironic; but evidently the overly pronounced surrealism in After Magritte persuaded him to let loose just a little bit, and there are passages in here to elicit more than the occasional snort of laughter or satisfied chuckle. It goes without saying that the dialogue is razor sharp; and the characters, constructed in such a short time, will remain memorable and distinct even after speeding into and out of the reader’s attention. More tellingly, they are more than just props with which to adorn a clever repartee. Not a lot more (there simply isn’t time or space for that), but Stoppard skirts around the edges of pathos and offers up the vaguest hints of elaborate and unlikely backstories. He demonstrates very well how successfully a single uttered word at the right time can speak volumes for a character’s motivations, general attitudes, and inclinations.
It is not necessary to be familiar with or even aware of René Magritte’s work to thoroughly enjoy this play, although certain set-pieces and tangential features will seem like a little wasted space as a consequence. If a criticism is to be made, it is that the exposition and the build-up to the play’s climax are proportionally a little too long for the conclusion, which is remarkably sudden and brief. Despite this perceived imbalance, the ending is not at all unsatisfying, and at risk of charging Stoppard with conceit, makes some nicely subtle references towards Magritte’s own theories of art.
Unlike Stoppard’s more famous Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, this play is markedly more straightforward and simple to understand, for all that it is a surrealist nod to a surrealist icon. For that reason alone although it might not be the ideal entry point into his catalogue, it would certainly not be a bad place to start for a reader investigating all of the well-deserved hubub around this renowned writer.